Big Black grazed contentedly, paying no attention to the unpredictable creature perched sixty feet above his head. Had I been a tree climbing swamp cougar, the horse would have laid his ears back while moving well out of range, but he was used to his rider’s idiosyncrasies by now. If I wanted to play squirrel while he took a break, so much the better for him.
Great River’s east shore settlement huddled a quarter mile distant, mostly low huts, a smattering of solid cabins, and half a dozen sprawling warehouses used to store goods cadged or salvaged or flat-out stolen from travelers down on their luck. According to road rumor, often obtained by lying unseen in the grass near various night encampments along the Gatorville road, the river rat stronghold had experienced a huge surge of good fortune in the past year. Even some of the larger freight companies stopped there now for a day or three, often picking up bargains from those warehouses to resell at a profit somewhere down the line. The ferrymen had a guild of sorts. Relative newcomers, three of them with gold and two dozen disciplined bodyguards, had moved in and more or less taken over. A benevolent takeover, or so it was said, resulting in a few cleaner streets, a reasonable tax, better built docks, and the construction of a huge two-story building , a combination inn and community meeting place known as the Roundhouse.
One thing had not changed. When it came to surviving river crossings, might still made right. Lone travelers were still routinely murdered if they showed the slightest hint of wealth beyond the exorbitant ferry fee, their bodies unceremoniously dumped overboard in mid-river and their worldly goods shared out among the crew members of the boat on which the victims had booked passage. Small groups, if well armed, wary, and willing to kill, usually survived. Nobody messed with freight wagons owned by the great freight companies, but independent trains were fair game if they lacked enough deadly guards to guarantee their safety.
The Three Guys, owner of the Roundhouse and de facto rulers of Great River’s settlement on this side of the flood, took a cut of everything. On the far side, the west side, few people lived full time. Mother Nature was nastier over there. The terrain was not conducive to settlement. It flooded every spring. But on this side….
I didn’t know enough. Rumors were all well and good, but I needed hard intel. And there was only one way to get that. Tucking the mini-scope into a hip pocket, I began my descent of the tree.
Carefully. A monkey I was not.
There was just enough daylight left to shave my beard, leaving the moustache in place. My hair had grown fast during these past two months of travel, nearly reaching my shoulders. I would leave that in place as well. Weapons…I could only hope what I’d overheard about protocol in that department was accurate. Showing no weapons at all marked a traveler as, well, an easy mark. Displaying too many would be asking for trouble from the elite enforcers reporting to Three Guys. In the end, I settled for the bone handled knife, complete with forward-curved guard, double edged and capable of stabbing or slicing with equal ferocity.
That would ride at my left hip in its well worn sheath, leaving observers to assume I was left handed. In truth I was not. I naturally favor my right hand but am ambidextrous, or close enough to it for company work. The wandering night burglar known as Chase, however, was a leftie all the way.
Of course, only a fool would enter Great River with just one weapon. A much smaller, slimmer blade was strapped to each forearm, shielded by a shirt sleeve. Yet another rode my back, between the shoulder blades. A two-shot derringer perched cheerfully in an ankle holster and three throwing stars lurked in special leather pockets sewn into the back of the big knife’s sheath. Finally, a pair of thin Sticking Pins were hidden in my hair–women’s weapons, those two, but Death knows no gender.
Hopefully, I’d not need this arsenal, but hope isn’t known for stopping either bullets or cold steel.
“Hide,” I told Black.
Joining the throng of incurious field workers returning to town after a hard day’s labor, I entered notorious Great River at middle dusk when it was light enough for ordinary mortals to believe they could still see yet dark enough for me to blend in, just one more faceless peasant shape, shambling along.
Not that I literally shambled, but I did limp just a little. It’s the subtle touches that make the difference.
There were no city walls, no officious guards inspecting folks at the edge of town. Still, I breathed a bit easier when a comely young wench greeted me at the main entrance to the Roundhouse. Stress reducers incarnate, those comely young wenches. “Purpose of visit?” She asked.
“Supper for now.” I’d have tipped my hat to her if I’d been wearing a hat. The inn had rooms, too. Of course. I wasn’t about to flash cash for that. Victim-ville, that would be. Or so my paranoia insisted. Besides, Black would need to know I’d returned to my campsite before daylight. If I didn’t, he might come looking for me even though he knew he shouldn’t.
“Grab any table you like,” she said, smiling. “Just don’t grab the girls.”
“Wouldn’t think of it.” I was serious. She looked like she didn’t believe that for a second.
The oversized dining room was about half full. Surprisingly, there was a corner table open, providing cover from two directions. I made a beeline for the chair that left me facing the main door, and settled in. A curvy brunette, no raving beauty but full of come-hither, spotted me and strolled over immediately. Unbelievable service.
I stared at her. “Coffee? You have real coffee? I’ve never tasted it. Thought there wasn’t any available since the Fall.”
“Coffee enough. Chicory, but it’s good stuff.”
Chicory. I should have known. “Sure, hon. Chico-coffee me.”
Her lips curled, powering a pair of dimples. “Choices tonight. Gumbo, gator steak, real beef stew, or catfish. With potatoes. Mashed, fried, baked, you name it. Always potatoes; our people grow plenty of them. Potato vodka is our number one export.”
Talky, wasn’t she? Her way of getting newbies to open up, maybe? “Guess I don’t look like I’m from around here.”
“Not yet. Stick around a while. If you survive, you’ll acquire the look. What’ll it be?”
“Gumbo any good?”
“It’s all good if you’re hungry enough.”
“Heh. How about a gator steak with fried spuds? I could go for some of that.”
She headed back to the kitchen. Another voice, deep and male, smote my ear. “That’s my chair.”
The dwarf’s head and shoulders topped the table, but not by much. Sawed-off human, but not with that weird short-arm look so many Little People had. This guy’s arms were as long as mine, twice as thick, ending in hands that looked like they could crush rocks. Or the heads of guys who tried to take his chair. Square featured, sideburns, brown hair with a touch of silver showing. Rugged dude. Dangerous, even without the retro tomahawk hanging through a wide leather band on his wide leather belt. Here, I realized, was my first Great River test.
I looked at him, calm, no aggression in my eyes but no fear either. “So how do you want to play this?”
Whatever he’d expected me to say or do, that wasn’t it. “Play?”
“Sure.” I glanced around, making sure no one else was close enough to hear. “If I don’t move, you lose face, and you can’t have that. If I do move, I’m marked as a wimp on my first day in town. Kind of a conundrum, eh?”
He studied me, considering. “Eh.”
“Got a possible solution.”
“Speak on, brother. This could be interesting.”
My lip twitched upward. “Sure hope so. You could join me. You know, like we were old friends. That chair there, it’ll put your back to a wall just like this one. Doesn’t give you as straight-on a look at the front door but does let you watch the girls coming and going from the kitchen. And I’ll pay for your meal.”
“Hah!” Without further ado, my dinner companion plunked his butt down in the seat I’d indicated. He did it so smoothly that it took me a second to realize he’d actually had to grip the chair seat to lift his body; his booted feet dangled a good six inches above the floor. Seated, he was tall enough to rest his elbows on the table like any normal adult male. Which made me realize it was only his legs that were short. Extremely short. From the waist up, he was a big man.
Huh. A leftover from the Outlawed Gene Realignment Experiments (OGRE) of the twenty-four hundreds, perhaps. Bet his family tree was something else. “Chase,” I said, extending a hand.
“Swako.” His grip was careful, a man who knows his strength is abnormal. I would not have wanted to engage Swako the Dwarf in close quarters combat.
Nor, as it turned out, an eating contest. Maybe it was only his way of one-upping me in our seating arrangement negotiations, but the man ordered gumbo and beef stew and an extra side of mashed potatoes. Cleaned up every bit, too, and the portions were large enough to feed Paul Bunyan. I barely managed to get all of my gator steak meal down. He finished before I did.
Neither of us spoke until our after dinner drinks arrived. Hot spiced tea for me, room temperature corn whiskey for him. Swako threw back a double shot, set the cup gently on the table, belched, and announced, “Not a bad snack.”
The thing was, I had no idea if he was pulling my leg or not. I needed to be careful. “You’re still a growing boy, I take it.”
“Powerful metabolism.” He flicked a grin, come and gone so quickly I almost missed it, yet it lit up the room for a second or two. “I tend to burn a few calories here and there.”
“Hard labor?” Questions were dangerous. Hopefully I’d phrased that safely enough.
“Not really all that hard.” He eyed his whiskey cup thoughtfully, caught our curvy waitress’s eye, and ordered a hot spiced tea to match my own. The man was definitely testing my promise to pay for his meal. “Loaded more horses than usual today.”
“Loaded. Most of these Great River rats couldn’t handle a Shetland pony. Freighters know their teams, but they appreciate me sweet-talking their more skittish animals onto the ferries. I got a way with horses. Or I should say, we understand each other. Easier than understanding people, most times.”
So. He was willing to talk. Maybe it was the size of the meal. Or the whiskey. Whatever, I wasn’t complaining. “Pay decent?” I tried to put a hint in there that I might be looking for work, but not enough of a hint to imply I might be competition.
“Depends on the ferry. Each boat captain sets his own rates for help like that. The ferries are rated, see. A, B, C, D. The A rated crossers pay enough. If I could load nothing but A boats all day long, I’d be socking it away. But the lower the rating, the cheaper the captain, and there aren’t enough high raters to shake a stick at. Plenty of D boats, all owned by the scrapings at the bottom of the barrel. Pennies per horse–they all pay according to the number of horses handled–and then they’ll try to cheat you on the head count or even say they already paid you when they haven’t. Early on, I whipped a couple of them for cheating like that. Collected my money, but those two haven’t given me one lick of work since.”
“Their loss, I presume.” I downed a sip of tea. Mighty good stuff. “Two big dudes just came in. They seem to think we’re downright interesting.”
“Three Guys enforcers.” Swako didn’t turn his head. Either he had access to an angled mirror somewhere or mighty good peripheral vision. “You might want to casually leave about now.”
“Ah.” So that was the lay of the land. “Not just yet. Do believe I’m right comfortable.”
The dwarf shrugged, a motion so slight that only I could have caught it. My funeral.
Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee sauntered over, ostensibly ignoring Swako but giving me meaningful looks. The men weren’t twins, but they could have been. Six feet plus, two-ten at a guess, with the sloping shoulders of wrestlers and paunches that reminded me of the ancient animated classic green ogre called Shrek. Big blubbery lips. Low, bushy eyebrows. Fat nostrils with way too many nose hairs. Hands like hams, fingers like sausages, brains the size of shriveled-up peas. These were vaunted Three Guys “elite” enforcers?
Dum spoke, his voice ridiculously high for such a big fellow. “You’re new in town.”
I just looked at him. Dee’s turn. “He said, you’re new in town.” I shifted my emotionless gaze to Dee.
They didn’t like my silence. Dum’s turn again, glowering. “What, you a deaf mute or something?”
“Or something,” I replied mildly, helping my self to another sip of tea.
“Yeah? Smart guy, huh? Why didn’t you answer when we said you’re new in town?”
“Oh.” I feigned surprise. To my left, I could sense Swako coiling within himself, a serpent ready to strike. He read people. These two thugs did not. “Were those questions? I could have sworn they were declarative sentences.”
For a long moment, they stood silent, unsure what to do. Perhaps trying to winkle out the meaning of the word “declarative.” Or “sentence.” My innocent face had them bumfoozled. Unfortunately, bumfoozling morons is a risky pastime. Dum jerked a meaty thumb toward my dining companion. “You’re already keeping some mighty smelly company. You want to be careful about that.”
“Thank you,” I bowed my head briefly in polite acknowledgement, “for letting me know what it is that I want. I was terribly confused before.”
Surprisingly, they decided to let it go. For now. Turning on their heels, they stomped off toward the bar. The bartender had a pitcher and two mugs ready before they got there.
“You,” Swako said softly, “didn’t have to do that.”
I faced the front door again. “As a matter of fact, I did. Have to do that.”
“Why?” He sounded genuinely curious.
“Don’t much like bullies.”
Just like that, our alliance was not only formed but cast in concrete. Though both of us knew the Three Guys enforcers would find a way to escalate, most likely with reinforcements, we weren’t bothered any more that evening as we sat, sipped, and talked. Both of us kept things back–that was understood–yet freely shared more than enough information to realize we faced the same problem.
How to get across Great River safely.
Swako had grown up in a settlement known as Idiot Village, a community of three hundred or so hardy individuals situated east of the Yellowstone Caldera Wastelands, on the east bank of Great River before Boulder River and Shaky River added their contributions to the muddy flood. There were others like him there and he’d been accepted, learning the woodcrafting trade from his father, but he’d been born restless. His parents were gone now, passed on. There was nothing holding him back. So he decided to journey to the Northwest Territories, drawn by tales of great evergreen forests. Since childhood, he’d dreamed about pine, larch, spruce, and fir, none of which grew anywhere near Idiot Village.
The shortest route by far would have been across four rivers, ending up above Peanut Lake, then across Roil River, picking up the Fort Steel Road halfway north from Gatorville, but that shortcut was sure death. Once across the Caldera, there be monsters, mutated grotesque creatures that made a mere gene-spliced dwarf look like a Greek god. He might have survived them, but did he care to test that theory? He thought not. Besides, he could not swim. And so it was that he traveled on a sturdy, stocky horse, part Welsh pony, part something else, following Great River all the way south to the thriving pirate town of Great River, formerly known as Fort Ford.
And here he’d been stuck for seven months. At first, he was told he could not cross without paying the exorbitant ferry fee. After he’d sold his horse to raise the money, he’d been told he couldn’t cross because they didn’t like his looks, and that was that. “I could have crushed any three of the bigoted buggers,” he told me, “but not an entire crew. Besides, some of them have shoot guns and all of them have knives or clubs. And a lot of them are too stupid to know they’re courting death if they jump me, so I knew they’d do it. Didn’t fancy ending up on the bleeding bottom of a dogpile, so I started hustling work. The same yahoos that won’t take me across are perfectly willing to work me on this side. They joke about it.”
I decided to lay my cards on the table. Some of them. “Sounds like we both have the same goal.”
“Crossing the river?”
“For starters, yes. I might be able to blend in with a group, especially if I paid for the privilege. It’s not like I’ve got your look-at-the-freak disadvantage. Roll around in the dirt for a bit and I could pass for a commoner barely able to scrape up the passage fee. But my horse…that’s another matter. He’s worth more than a whole blasted ferryboat.”
“You have a purebred stud or something?”
“Yeah. Close enough, anyway.”
Swako let out a low whistle. “Hope you didn’t ride in on him.”
“I ain’t that dumb.” My voice was dry. “Huh. Three more bully boys just came in. Looks like they’re going to belly up to the bar with the others. I’d say it’s time we skedaddled out of here, quiet like. You free for the rest of the night?”
His eyes narrowed in suspicion. “I’m no burglar, in case you’re recruiting.”
“Nothing like that. It’s just that you’ve inspired me. I’ve got a plan. You might like it or you might not, but it’ll take some time to explain. I’ll need to make some purchases and you’d be the one knowing where to find the right sellers, seeing as you’ve been here a while. For now, I’ll be heading out to where I’m camped, well outside of town. You’d be welcome to join me if you don’t mind a bit of a hike in the dark and sleeping rough.”
“Lead on,” he said, and I did, though it put my back to both him and the five count ’em five Three Guys enforcers at the bar. One or two more rounds of liquid courage and they’d be figuring to hunt us up. Or hunt us down, whichever direction worked best.
As we cleared the town limits, trudging along, it occurred to me that it was rather reckless of both of us to trust each other so quickly. More for him than for me, as the sliver of moonlight left Swako stumbling occasionally. For me, as always, there was no darkness at all. My camp, hidden well back in the woods, possessed no night terrors. Then again, it was obvious the Three Guys enforcers had been hassling the dwarf for some time; the Roundhouse incident had not been their first rodeo. Perhaps my companion had felt a window slamming shut, especially after two thugs had grown to five, elbows on the bar, ever so carefully not looking our way. Both of us, I was sure, survived by paying attention to our sixth senses, those arbiters of survival ignored by the masses from time immemorial.
Certainly, the stumpy legged descendant of OGRE had given me much to think about, all for the price of one oversized meal at a decent inn. The routine practice of freight companies, for example. Their guards were more than enough to keep their precious cargoes safe from thieving, murdering, river rat pirate ferrymen. Unfortunately for civilian travelers, company guards seldom interfered with violence that didn’t directly concern them. Swako had heard of exceptions being made, but rarely. Any guard captain who allowed his men to be distracted…that man would most often be looking for new employment in short order, especially if his boss was a cheapskate who utilized the least expensive ferries, the green-scum D boats.
The dwarf didn’t flinch or hesitate when we left the road to take to the brush. It didn’t seem to bother him that my camp was hidden deep and well, a miniature robber’s roost. However, he did jump in surprise when I issued a low command. “Come!” Big Black materialized, seemingly out of nowhere, whickering softly in pleasure at my return while casting a curious eye toward the interesting two-legged creature I’d brought with me.
“Holy Mother of Flaming Foals!” Swako breathed the epithet, staring at the stallion in astonishment. Felt more than seen with presumably human-normal night vision, the animal must have seemed a right demon from the depths, looming large, silhouetted against a backdrop of stars.
“He’s impressive,” I agreed. “Let’s get settled in–no fire–and I’ll explain the plan my superior brain has concocted.” Not that I was serious about the superior brain part, but I thought my idea might actually work.
Swako, once he’d heard all of it, agreed. “I just hope we don’t have to kill anybody. I’m a virgin, you know. At shedding blood, that is. At shedding blood.” It seemed important to my friend that I not think of him as a virgin in the sexual sense. Since he looked to be in his forties, I could understand that.
“We’re on the same page, brother,” I admitted. “I haven’t killed anybody, either. But we’d best not let those river rats know they’ve got two virgins aboard. In this case, illusion is everything. Although if we do have to take a few river rats out, we’d best be ready. No hesitating.”
“Agreed.” He seemed relieved. “You’ll need to make your purchases alone tomorrow.”
“Alone? Best we not be seen together?”
“That’s my thinking. I can work the docks as usual. My wannabe persecutors don’t mess with me there. Three Guys thinking is, hey, get the ferries loaded and moving ASAP, and they know it goes faster with me than without. Which,” he added dryly, “may have something to do with all that refusal to ferry me across. I may be a victim of my own success.”
“I can give you detailed directions. And passwords in a couple of cases, codes that will let friends of mine know you really are working with me. They’ll sell you what you need that way, and at fair prices.”
Couldn’t argue with that. “All right, then. It’s late; you might want to curl up and get some sleep.”
“Just me? You don’t sleep?”
“Not at night. I’ll grab a couple of hours in the morning. I reckon you have to be at the docks by dawn?”
“Earlier than that.” He coughed, turned around three times like a dog checking out its bed, and plunked down on the spot. He was snoring in no time flat. Guess he was used to sleeping rough at that.
TWO DAYS LATER, DOCK THIRTEEN, GREAT RIVER
D boat ferry master Shaw stared moodily across the muddy water, rising sun at his back, casting long shadows out over the flood. He was not a happy camper this morning. Not that he was a jolly sort in the first place, but come on. The river gods were conspiring against him this day. They should have been halfway across the river already, but Swako the Dwarf had not shown up to ease the horses aboard and the second of two teams had proved fractious beyond all common sense. Not that a stupid horse had any common sense in the first place.
Worse yet, two of his men had gotten into a barroom brawl the previous evening, fighting each other. The combatants had pulled knives, resulting in a disabling slice across Wink’s thigh and a trip downriver for burly Thad, the latter’s intestines spilling out, his little pig eyes staring sightlessly at the sliver moon. Shorthanded, his oar men would tire sooner than they should; the crossing would be slow. They’d land too far downstream, necessitating a longer and even slower poling along the far bank before the return trip.
The only consolation came from knowing this was the height of the trading season; there would be other wagons waiting to cross Great River eastbound. Still, he should have been able to make three round trips today and now he’d be lucky to manage two.
Not only that, but his bad molar had abcessed again and his gut was killing him.
A sudden commotion drew his attention toward the rear of the boat. What the–? Silhouetted against the sun, a rider on a monster black warhorse had just clattered onto the deck. A rich target, perhaps, though Shaw felt an uneasy ripple surge through his innards. On the big black horse’s heels came another, a smaller but sturdy brown creature with cropped ears and a long lower jaw. That rider was a big man, shirtless, long of arm, with–wait a second. Could that be the freaking dwarf?
It was. That was the cause of the commotion. He strode back toward the stern, determined to put a stop to this. His men were right to refuse passage to the mutant. No way this was happening on his vessel. The freight wagon guards were watching the confrontation with interest. He had to establish his authority, by all the dark demons of Hell.
Then, with the light angle better so he could see details, the ferry captain stopped cold. Ice ran through his gut. It was no wonder his stern gate man hadn’t stopped these two from taking passage by force. The big black stud looked fearsome enough. His rider looked worse. Head shaven bald. Black patch over his right eye. Sleeveless black shirt showing well defined, muscular shoulders, the one on Shaw’s side sporting a pair of tattoos in blue ink. A Star of David above a jagged lightning bolt. The man’s good eye was cold as the grave itself, alert and lifeless at the same time. He had enough weapons hung about his person to outfit a small army. Back-slung sword hilt jutting above his right shoulder. Bone handled knife at one hip, heavy revolver at the other. Throwing daggers strapped to forearms. Rifle in the saddle boot. The mutant dwarf was on the other side, guarding the black rider’s blind side with a tomahawk, of all things. Worst of all, the one-eyed man held a sawed off, double barreled shotgun. And it was pointed straight at the poor, innocent ferry master.
Almost casually, the gunman wrapped his horse’s bridle reins around his saddle horn, freeing a hand to dip into a shirt pocket. The coin sparked in the sun as it spun through a graceful arc, landing on the deck with a telltale ching sound. Shaw stared down at the double gold at his feet, mesmerized. Jewish gold, the best. Enough to pay triple passage for these two and their mounts.
A series of metallic clicks jerked his attention back to the man on the horse as both shotgun hammers ratcheted back to full cock. “Your choice.”
His choice. Yes. His choice between triple gold in his pocket or a double load of buckshot in his gut. He had no desire to become one with the river, feeding scavengers. That was for others. With a slight nod of acknowledgement, he bent slowly to pick up the coin, careful to make no sudden moves. When he straightened, the shotgun and its holder were both still staring at him, one as expressionless as the other.
Damn. He’d thought maybe the gunman would let down his guard. “Stand down!” He barked to his crew, then turned to head back up front, putting as much distance as possible between his own precious body and mounted Death.
When his passengers finally disembarked on the west bank, every man jack on board breathed a sigh of relief. “That man,” the oar master observed to no one in particular, “is one stone cold killer.” The legend was born, a story of the Shotgun Rider and his Mutant Dwarf Companion that grew with every telling, often used to frighten unruly children into behaving.
Beyond the nearest ridge, once they’d passed the freight wagons with whom they’d shared passage, Swako and Milo finally looked at each other and started laughing. They’d pulled it off. The’d actually pulled it off. Great River’s scummiest scum had no idea they’d been intimidated by two “killers” who’d never once drawn blood in anger. In their version of the Great River Ferry Incident, told with scrupulous attention to fact and a fair amount of laughter, their triumph would eventually become known throughout the Northwest Territory as The Tale of Two Virgins.